Published May 16, 2002
WASHINGTON – Congressional inquiries came fast and furious Thursday after the White House acknowledged that it had received some clues before Sept. 11 that Usama bin Laden's terror network might hijack American planes.
Though intelligence gatherers were unable to speculate that the hijackers would use the planes as missiles, Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has requested that the Justice Department inspector general investigate FBI failures to respond to warnings of threats against the United States.
"The recent revelations about this memo and other apparent missteps have put the FBI's credibility at risk," Grassley wrote in a letter to Inspector General Glenn Fine Wednesday. "I ask that your review include how this warning came about, which FBI officials were aware of it, when the warning was provided to them, what actions were taken or not taken and why, along with any other relevant lessons to be learned," he wrote.
Grassley also wrote a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was not heading up the FBI at the time of the warning, asking him to make the letter public.
The letter was written in response to the discovery that the FBI Phoenix office had written a memo in July to FBI headquarters, informing the agency that Arabs linked to Al Qaeda were receiving flight instruction.
The information, revealed to President Bush by Central Intelligence Agency officials during an August sojourn at the president's Texas ranch, included information that a large number of Arabs were seeking pilot, security and airport operations training in at least one U.S. flight school. The appropriate agencies were given the information and urged to identify more possible Middle Eastern students at flight schools around the country.
The information also included details about Zaccarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, who was in custody at the time of the attacks. Moussaoui, the lone defendant in the aftermath of the attacks, is charged with conspiring with bin Laden and the 19 suicide hijackers to attack Americans.
In the case notes of an FBI agent who investigated Moussaoui is the speculation that "he might be planning to fly a plane into the (World Trade Center.)"
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said the memo should have sent up some red flags.
"How in the world could somebody have read this document and not had lights, firecrackers, rockets go off in their head that this is something that is really important?" Sen. Bob Graham, interviewed on CBS, asked.
"We need the facts on the table," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. "The reports are disturbing that we're finding this out now. We need to find out what the White House knew, when they knew it, and what they did with that information to be able to avoid further acts of terrorism from occurring."
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said his committee received the same general warning that "was not specific in its content," but that perhaps an inkling of the terror to come could have been played out by FBI analysts trained to decipher clues.
"I think the basic reaction in the intelligence committee was they couldn't believe that this happened. They couldn't believe the FBI had this memo sent on July the 10th and did nothing about it," he said.
The CIA, which briefs the president daily, would not confirm what it told Bush, but the agency said bin Laden's group attempting to hijack a plane was one of a number of terrorist scenarios bandied about by government officials last summer.
None of the information suggested that hijackers would crash planes into American landmarks and no dates were offered, a CIA official said. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that the intelligence community had general threats about Usama bin Laden and the potential of "hijackings in the traditional sense," but FBI Director Mueller has testified that the intelligence community didn't see the plane-as-missile attack coming.
"The director has stated clearly. He said this in sworn open testimony to the Congress. The information in that memo -- had we known about it, given what we know since Sept. 11, would not have enabled us to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11," Fleischer said.
"It represents a failure to connect the dots," Graham spokesman Paul Anderson retorted Wednesday. "This was dismissed rather lightly at FBI headquarters."
Fleischer said the alert to appropriate agencies to be on the lookout may have prevented the hijackers from using guns to muscle their way to the cockpits. The terrorists reportedly used box cutters and knives to threaten airline crews and passengers.
Information that the White House had been informed of Arabs training at flight schools is the latest revelation in a House-Senate intelligence panel's investigation into intelligence failures that led to the Sept. 11 tragedy.
About 3,000 people were killed in the attacks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.